Skip to: Noughts and Crosses
Ric Renton’s own story about his time in Durham prison is insightful, nuanced, raises awareness of an issue few people in the north east know about – and firmly marks Jack McNamara’s stamp as Live Theatre’s new artistic director.
Jack McNamara got off to a good start with We Are The Best back in June, but whilst the debut may have been a safe bet with an uplifting crowd-pleaser, this follow-up is a lot darker. And – if the pattern on the fringe circuit is anything like the rest of theatre – heavy going is considerably riskier in terms of audience numbers. And yet, this play is getting good audiences, and for good reasons too. This is a co-production with Paines Plough, and Ric Renton stars in his own play about his experiences of Durham Prison. There was a time when prison dramas were full of brutality, either from guards or other inmates. Now it’s a bit more complicated.
First, a lesson in recent local history. I must confess, I had no idea Durham Prison was such a controversial subject. The last I heard, it was a prison with reluctant guests included Myra Hindley and Rosemary West. When it came to public attention there was a high rate of suicide, the high-security women’s wing was closed it it became a men-only prison. One might have thought the authorities would have also actually tried to stop the stupidly high suicide rate – instead, it appears they just shrugged. Usual word of caution for any creative writing based on a true story: there is little to stop a theatre depicting a one-sided account without allowing those under fire their side of the story. However, Ric Renton’s account is consistent with the publicly available information about Durham Prison – and considering that this prison has recently been changed completely from a category A Prison to a reception prison – I suspect those in charge of the prison today will accept this was fair.
Ric (named “Shepherd” in the play) is in a cell between Brown and Knox. The one thing you quickly notice that these three have in common is that none of them should really be in the same prison as the most hardened criminals in the country. Yes, they have all done enough to earn themselves a stretch, but it seems the people who most need protecting from these three are themselves. Especially Brown. He seems so lost in the outside world he commits crime after inept crime on the expectation he’ll be going back. He claims to be building matchstick models of Durham Cathedral that probably only exist in his mind – and when we finally do hear his back story, it’s of someone who didn’t stand a chance in life.
If there’s one weakness of the play, it’s the prison lingo. On the one hand, Ric Renton understandably wanted to keep the play authentic, but this comes at the cost of sometimes losing what’s happening before catching up later. Indeed, the playtext begins with a glossary of all the terms used – I would have considered making this more visible before the play to give us a better chance of picking this up. The key phrase though, is the title of the play, “One off”. I’d assumed this was the language used in reports to downplay the conditions that led to to odd suicide, but when your body count comes close to three figures every year, that fools nobody. Instead, it’s the term routinely used (apparently unique to Durham Prison) whenever a body is found – so obviously not a one-off at all.
Nuance features quite heavily in the play. A less patient ex-con might have written a tirade about the conditions – and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have blamed Renton had he chosen to do this – but instead he goes out of his way to pay tribute to the guard who he believes stopped him going over the edge. Jock is walking on a tightrope throughout the play, doing his best to get Shepherd, Brown and Knox back on the straight and narrow, but still having to pick his battles with the system that employs him. Things are kept in proportion – the physical brutality that tarnished the prisons of the past are no more, but better than before is not enough. If anything, this reinforces the case of what the problems of the more modern prisons, and the casual cruelty that comes from the less humane guards reading out prisoners’ letters and laughing at them is laid bare for the damage that causes.
What is most striking about the play is how little of his own story Renton chooses to put in his play. One of my pet hates with a lot of current writers is “main character syndrome”, where pick topics that don’t really have that much to do with them personally, and try to make it all about themselves. Of course, sometimes your own story is interesting enough to be a play in its own right, and it seems that Renton could validly have written it that way if he wanted to. According to this interview, he make a lot of enemies of other inmates, which surely could have been a much bigger part of the story. Instead, he chose to make it about more than himself. He used the opportunity he had to pay tribute to those less fortunate than him, and those who brought him back from the brink.
A deserved success all round for Ric Renton, Jack McNamara – and also co-producers Paines Plough who have had an excellent year impressing me with Sorry You’re Not a Winner and (via Alphabetti’s revival) Sugar Baby. There is a lot at stake with your first productions as an artistic director, and One Off has paid off handsomely.
One Off runs until 26th November at Live Theatre.
Also on the main stage …
Whilst I’m on the subject of heavy going, I’ll say a few words about the return of Pilot Theatre’s Noughts and Crosses. I saw in this 2019 and loved it back then, but now that I have seen in the second time around it has been better than I remember. For that reason, it earns this:
Firstly. if you haven’t already seen the play but plan to do so, it’s better that you don’t read the reviews and see it cold. For those of you who have seen the 2019 play, the one change made to the production is that it goes up from a cast of eight to a cast of ten. I realise budgets are tight and more actors are expensive, but the extra two actors in a play that heavily relies on doubling helps a lot. Last time I got confused whether the liberation militia mole and Callum’s father were supposed to be the same person – this time, it’s made clear they’re not by using tow completely different actors.
The main thing, however, is seeing second time round how effective the message is. In an alternate world where the black people, or Crosses, have the power – and white people, or Noughts, are oppressed on a scale comparable to Jim Crow’s America, it’s easy enough to demonstrate why racism is bad, but explaining why is harder. In this play, a lot of things are wrong: the racism that both the Noughts and Crosses have to each other; and the violence many of them advocate as a solution. However, with the exception of Kamal (who is an irredeemably bad opportunist and race baiter), you always understand why the characters feel and act the way they do, however wrong it may be. I wonder if the semi-fictitious setting helped here. In the real world, it is very difficult to rationalise the mind of a racist without risking looking like you’re endorsing it, but with the key events of this story being largely products of Malorie Blackman’s imagination, it gives the freedom to be bolder.
The other thing that stood out the second time round is only a small thing, but an important one: the little acts of humanity. Callum’s conversation with his guard on death row is one such moment, and even when the Cross police officer takes off her hat to break some tragic new to a Nought family it’s effective. The books go beyond this story, and – apologies for the spoiler here – Kamal does eventually get the comeuppance he richly deserves. These little moments when people see each other as human beings surely plays a part in what’s to come.
I will finish this with a crazy request for Pilot Theatre: please consider finishing the saga. I haven’t read the books, but possibly the next few books that follow Sephy and Callum’s story and end in the downfall of the system could be condense into play number two. What could be really interesting, however, is the final book, set a generation on when the first Nought Prime Minister has been elected. I am sceptical that a story heavily based on the Jim Crow era says that much about the racial politics of today, but a book with parallels of the Barack Obama years is a different matter. Could this be the third play of a Pilot Theatre trilogy? You are welcome to take up this challenge if you wish.